During the warmer months, we ate in the room attached to the kitchen. It was flanked on two sides by double screens that went as high as the ceiling, and it was therefore called The Sun Room. Anyway, the sun room had two wall shelves full of my mother’s cookbooks. These cookbooks were rarely used, because my mom kept her recipe box — pretty much the only thing she used except on very rare occasions — next to the stove. I think it was on a night we had hamburgers for dinner that my sister got her brilliant idea of the new place to get rid of Undesirables. Don’t get me wrong — we liked my mom’s hamburgers, it’s just that they were so damn thick that it was often difficult to finish them.
Of course, there were the times that my mom tried to get creative on us and mushed chopped onions and green peppers into the ground beef. And in that case, we actually didn’t like the hamburgers. Whatever kind of hamburgers they were that night, at the earliest possible moment, my sister peeled off her bun, grabbed what was left of her patty, got on her chair, and stuffed it behind a book in on the top-most shelf. Sunday nights, we set up the card table and ate in the den so we could watch Sixty Minutes and Murder, She Wrote. To this day, the sound of the ticking stopwatch relentlessly conjures up visions of slightly tepid Campbell’s chicken noodle soup in brown earthenware mugs and B.L.T.s.
Of course, we didn’t always like the B.L.T.s. Did I mention that the den has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on three walls?
Christmastime and colder weather brought us back into the dining room, which didn’t have bookshelves, but it also brought elaborate faux holly centerpieces. Cooked spinach was then, and in fact still is, the bane of my existence. My mother knew this, yet still she served it to us. Luckily, my sister’s shrewd sense of color had noted that the putrid black-green of the wet spinach was exactly the same color as the centerpiece. What remains a mystery is what the hell happened to all that spinach after it went into the middle of the centerpiece. We never smelled it moldering. Years later, we even checked the interior, but found no sign of it. My mother never even knew about it until we confessed a bunch of youthful peccadilloes to her over a few glasses of wine (when we were too old to be grounded), so it’s not like she ever went and cleaned the centerpiece out.
To this day, my mother is still finding fossilized pieces of sandwiches, hamburgers, and other less identifiable remnants when she pulls out Martin Chuzzlewit or The Joy of Cooking.